Tackling a terrible trembling

MEMOIR: MOLLY McCLOSKEY reviews The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves , by Siri Hustvedt, Sceptre, 199pp, £12.99

MEMOIR: MOLLY McCLOSKEYreviews The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves, by Siri Hustvedt, Sceptre, 199pp, £12.99

SIRI HUSTVEDT’S website has a video clip of her speaking in Adelaide in 2008. As she begins to read a statement about her work, her body starts to tremble. Her grip on the podium tightens visibly.

“I’m shaking,” she says, and bites her lip. The audience, charmed that this famous novelist and essayist is quaking before them, laughs kindly and gives her a round of applause. They don’t realise that this is no ordinary bout of nerves, that the woman quivering before them, like someone who’s been out in the cold for a very long time, is the “shaking woman” who will become the subject of Hustvedt’s next book.

Certainly this bout looks tame compared to the one Hustvedt describes at the beginning of The Shaking Woman, the one that came out of nowhere in 2006, the day she was giving a talk in honour of her late father. "My arms flapped. My knees knocked. I shook as if I were having a seizure." As bizarre as it was, Hustvedt assumed it was a one-off occurrence, triggered by the context. (Perhaps she had not truly acknowledged her beloved father's death.) But several months later it happened again, the two-people-in-one: "a reasonable orator and a woman in the midst of a personal quake".


When the mysterious spasms began, Hustvedt was already steeped in neurology, psychology and psychoanalysis, partly because of various long-standing anomalies in her neural make-up: tingling arms and legs, disturbing responses to colour and light, a febrile seizure as an infant and one seizure as an adult, mirror-touch synaesthesia (a kind of hyper-empathy), a tendency to hear voices and a history of severe migraines. In her 30s she was diagnosed as having the nerves of a 60-year-old woman.

Her quest to understand why, in her early 50s, she began to shake thus takes place in the context of some larger questions. How far has science come in understanding symptoms that don’t fit into ordinary neurological diagnoses? How do changes at the neural level relate to those at the psychological level? What is the relationship between neurological predispositions (to shaking, for example) and the particular triggers to which an individual is subject? How are our illnesses and neuroses related to what we regard as the self?

Hustvedt brings an enormous amount of reading to bear on these issues. (Her husband, the novelist Paul Auster, remarked that her rapacious reading on the subjects resembled an addiction.) She has an amazing capacity to process large amounts of information on complex topics and to re-present it in a form that is understandable without seeming oversimplified. But if there is a weakness in the book, it may be the excess of information and citation at the expense of the personal story.

In an effort to see the shaking woman from “every angle”, Hustvedt discusses automatic writing, autobiographical memory, the doppelganger, post-traumatic stress disorder, biofeedback, hypnosis, hysteria, conversion disorder, brain imaging, the nature of consciousness, our relationship with death, language acquisition, the meaning (or not) of dreams, epilepsy, spiritual experiences, the qualitative experience of pain, voice-hearing and more. On a single (and fairly representative) page we get Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Simone de Beauvoir, Francis Crick, Patricia Churchland and Tolstoy.

It’s not that any of the above isn’t interesting, it is only that the book feels a little too often disembodied. One wants more of Hustvedt herself. It is, after all, the individual she explicitly sets out to reclaim from theory, reminding us that the particular must illuminate the universal. What all this information does underscore is how the individual, especially one with a problem not easily diagnosed, can find him- or herself floating in a sea of expertise, which may or may not help. For instance, while functional MRI may demonstrate neuroanatomical correlates to a hysterical paralysis or blindness, brain imaging can’t explain conversion disorder or tell doctors how to treat it.

The passages on conversion – a state in which a person seems unconsciously to “create a bad body part or disability to take the blow instead of the ‘I’ ” – are some of the most intriguing in a book that grapples with the mind-body relationship. Also interesting are Hustvedt’s reflections on the place of migraine in her life and the sense of both splitting and unity within the self. A friend who witnessed her second shaking episode told her it was like watching a doctor and a patient in the same body. On the other hand, with regard to migraine: “I cannot really see where the illness ends and I begin . . . The headaches are me, and rejecting them would mean expelling myself from myself.”

The Shaking Womanfalls into the category of work in which a personal narrative of illness interweaves with social, historical, philosophical and medical explication. Hustvedt's undertaking here is sincere and intellectually rigorous, and readers curious about the intersections of neurology, psychiatry and psychoanalysis will find the book of great interest.

Ultimately, she arrives at no clear explanation for her shaking. Citing Hebb’s law – neurons that fire together wire together – she notes: “The more I shake, the more likely it is that I’ll shake in the future. Can I say that the shaking woman is a repeatedly activated pattern of firing neurons and stress hormones released in an involuntary response, which is then dampened as I keep my cool . . . convinced that I am not really in any danger? Is that all there is to it?”

Unlikely. And, as much as one imagines she would like a neat diagnosis, one also senses that Hustvedt feels a grudging admiration for these maladies that won’t easily surrender their secrets. For even as she revels in the advances of neuroscience, she holds fast to the view that it is in these moments of elusiveness that we are most interestingly human.

Molly McCloskey is a novelist and short-story writer. She has recently completed a non-fiction book on schizophrenia and the family, and is currently the Writer Fellow at Trinity College Dublin